When I went to the SF MoMA last week, the Frida Kahlo exhibit occupied the most prominent gallery space (and it was crowded, even at 11 AM on a Thursday!) but I also looked forward to visting the exhibition of Lee Miller's photography. I first became interested in Miller's work after seeing this photograph last summer at the Maryhill Museum of Art--one of the most striking photos I have ever seen.
Miller, though less famous than Frida Kahlo, is also an interesting character: a blonde American beauty who started out as a model, became an acclaimed Surrealist photographer, and then was the only female combat photographer in World War II.
Seeing the Kahlo and Miller exhibits on the same day made me think about the different perspectives they provided on the life of a female artist in the first half of the twentieth century. There's a number of rather striking similarities between these women: both were born in 1907, both produced work associated with the Surrealist movement, both had romantic relationships with famous male artists, both were little-known during their lifetimes and then rediscovered circa 1980. Kahlo died in 1954; Miller lived till 1977 but gave up photography by the mid-1950s.
After seeing the Kahlo exhibit, if I had to pick just one word to describe her art, it would be "suffering." Her famous self-portraits have a mildly grotesque air, what with her emphasis on her unibrow and mustache, but many of her other paintings are less often reproduced because they are so viscerally disturbing.
Indeed, it has been suggested that our present-day adulation of Frida Kahlo and other women who suffered (Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf) leads to thinking that a woman must suffer in order to be a great artist. (See this very interesting article by Stephanie Mencimer.) As a woman with artistic ambitions, I say this had better be just a pernicious myth!
And the work of Lee Miller seems to offer a more hopeful alternative. Here I will have to disagree with Robert Zaller, who wrote that Miller lived with "a wound perhaps no less painful than any of Frida Kahlo's." I'm not saying that Miller had a hunky-dory life: she was sexually abused as a child and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after photographing World War II. But in contrast to Kahlo, whose physical and psychological pain emanates from every brushstroke, the tragedies of Miller's life seem incidental to her art, not an integral part of it. "Suffering" is not the first word I think of when I consider Miller's work.
As a war photographer, Miller took it upon herself to observe and record the suffering of others. She could have refused to look at the horrors of the concentration camps, or turned back when it got too grisly, but she kept on nonetheless--out of a sense of a higher duty. Whereas Kahlo used the suffering of others as a metaphor for her own pain, constantly reinscribing her own emotional turmoil even when she wasn't painting self-portraits.
Here is Kahlo's A Few Small Nips, ostensibly based on a news story about a man who stabbed his girlfriend--but Kahlo chose this subject because she had just learned that Diego Rivera was cheating on her with her own sister, and felt stabbed in the gut by the news.
And here is Miller's photograph of a young German woman who killed herself upon her country's defeat in the war. This image is also disturbing, but in a quieter way than Kahlo's. It's almost an example of the "banality of evil"--at the same time we register the girl's death, Miller also wants us to notice the button that's hanging loose from the tufted couch, or the position of her pale hands in the light.
And most of Miller's 1930s work doesn't have to do with suffering at all--just studies of light and shadow and how everyday objects can look strange when you view them from a different angle, such as this image of a nude woman bent forward.
Frida Kahlo looked into herself, while Lee Miller looked out at the world. Of course, this might have something to do with the artistic media they chose--Kahlo smearing colored fluids onto a canvas, Miller looking through a machine made of metal and glass. Is painting, by its very nature, more emotional than photography? And, if more emotional, more stereotypically "feminine"?